Toy Story may be Pixar’s most ground-breaking film. Finding Nemo may be Pixar’s most artistic film. Then let it be said with equal confidence, WALL-E is Pixar’s best film.
The Unique Premise
Pixar has always gambled on their animated features. A movie pivoting around a relationship between a monster and a child? A movie directed at movie critics asked to believe a rat can cook? But no film gambles more than WALL-E. At the very core, WALL-E is the greatest animated silent film. Only in hindsight did I realize how ludicrous the concept of WALL-E was. A 30 minute dialogue-less prelude for restless, bustling children? A robot with a fascination for a rather out-dated musical, Hello Dolly? A story about two robots falling in love? Only in hindsight, would I have thought this movie was set for utter failure.
One of the most common ways filmmakers establish exposition in the beginning is through words. You’ll have that narrator talking who is shortly revealed to be one of the main characters.
More rarely, it’s just a narrator.
More rarely, it’s just words.
I’ve always believed that cinema is primarily a visual medium. And I’ve always believed if you can communicate something through visuals alone, then you should. WALL-E fully embraces this philosophy to produce one of the best movie introductions… ever. Why is it so good, you ask? It’s because of how much exposition Pixar can get across without ever telling it to you. There’s this new trash-Earth world to introduce, and you learn everything you need to know about this world just by watching this little trash compactor named WALL-E do his thing. There’s no one here. It used to have humans living on it. Humans built WALL-E’s to try to clean up all the garbage.
More than that, it serves as character development. His favorite movie is Hello Dolly. He collects human inventions. He is lonely.
And finally, it sets up the themes. And I love how they force you to search for them. Since there was no plot driving the story forward, I never found myself in my usual mode-of-thought: Oh, I bet this is what is going to happen next. In fact, I had no clue as to what direction WALL-E was going story-wise. Hence, I found myself searching for themes, and only towards the end did I realize what WALL-E was about.
Okay, so it isn’t really a climax, but the whole movie takes a whole different tone after EVE, standing for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, lands on Earth. It becomes a love-at-first-sight story. I usually hate these types of stories, but it actually works perfectly here. Why? Because WALL-E has a reason to fall in love at first sight. He is so desperate to experience human emotions that it makes sense for him to fall in love so quickly. However, we see EVE is not like WALL-E. There is something more robotic to EVE. Although her English is much better than WALL-E’s, (I find it amusing that he never pronounces EVE’s name correctly, opting for EVA) EVE is more programmed. She’s inherently violent, shooting at practically anything that even moves. And she searches relentlessly for something, as if that is her only purpose in life. Sure, WALL-E does his trash compacting gig, but he has interests. He has a hobby. He is more… he is more…
There is another shift of tone once EVE finds what she is looking for (a plant) and WALL-E accompanies her to a ship called the Axiom. It is here where we see what we have become. Jelly beans on hovering lawn chairs.
This is where the movie went from Kevin’s Favorite Movies to Kevin’s Almost Favorite Movies. Once we’re on the Axiom, unfortunately, it is a movie for the kids. Here’s what you need to know: WALL-E frees John and Mary from their technological trance.
Now, it is very enjoyable. It’s still very funny, there’s one of my favorite side characters, and there is…
The Pixar Moment
Before we flew a rocket to the moon, before we built jets, airplanes, and helicopters, I think humans were mesmerized by the concept of flight. In a way, we still are. When I see a bird flying, I wonder if it knows how lucky it is to be able to fly like that. Although that is essentially what EVE and WALL-E are doing, I was mesmerized by another completely different concept. The concept of dance. It was one of those moments where I gained perspective. If I had a choice between flying and dancing, which would I pick? Now, I myself don’t even like dancing, so the analogy could have been lost on me, but it is the concept that pierced me. The chance of flying by means of natural forces is actually quite probable. It has a distinct evolutionary advantage. Organisms that can fly can avoid non-flying predators. But what are the chances of dancing arising by means of natural forces? What distinct evolutionary advantage does it give us? How lucky are we that we can dance? Statistically speaking, it is even greater than that of flying.
When I was introduced to the trash world of WALL-E, I thought I knew exactly what this movie was going to be about. It’s going to be about environmentalism. It’s going to have a heavy-handed message about humans polluting the Earth and succumbing to the luxuries provided by advancements in technology. The people who leaves WALL-E with the same impression are simply wrong. WALL-E isn’t a cautionary tale about commercialism and industry. WALL-E is an inspiring story about a robot who taught humans why humans are worth saving in the first place. Why humans, despite their sometimes naturally violent behavior and parasitic inclinations with Earth, deserve to live, to exist.
WALL-E begins with just a human footprint. We are no longer occupying Earth. We are what we have left behind. A foreign alien would probably conclude humans were ruthless, reckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncaring creatures. And to their credit, they’d be right. Sometimes I am ashamed to call myself a human being. Sometimes I wish I was an ant so I couldn’t do any harm. But amazingly, WALL-E forms a different conclusion. By sorting through all the trash, he finds the heartbeat of human culture. Not the culture that shops, spends, and throws it all away just to shop again. Not the culture that creates material goods, but the culture that creates human relationships. Just like Leonardo da Vinci was consumed by the idea of flying, WALL-E is consumed by the idea of falling in love. Of shaking hands. Of greeting each other by name. Of holding hands. Of dancing. Of making a human connection. Amazingly, WALL-E restores my faith in mankind.
WALL-E represents what should be considered the best of humanity, what we most identify with. His home is a human haven in an in-human world. He has decorated it with Christmas lights. He has made a hammock for himself. He has even mimicked a living room TV with an iPod and a magnifying glass. But his home feels strangely empty. Although WALL-E has managed to physically replicate a house, he is upset that he has no one to share it with.
WALL-E says, no matter how accomplished we feel as a species for building cities, shopping malls, roads, cars, and houses, no one will care about that 700 years from now. Even now, do you gaze at a skyscraper and say: that is the embodiment of humanity? If we are to leave a footprint behind, let’s leave a footprint that captures the spirit of humanity, the spirit of WALL-E. Something that isn’t obscured by so much… well, garbage. A footprint that doesn’t need an OCD trash compactor to dig up. I’m going to re-show an image below, and I hope I’ve been able to give it more meaning now, because it really is a beautiful moment in the film on a second viewing.
What is the spirit of humanity? It’s that we can gaze at our cosmos and admit we are tiny. We are meaningless. But we are not alone.
Final Grade: A (99%)–An out-of-this-world footprint left by the greatest animation studio in the world.